I recently visited Elizabeth Rendall as she lived out her final days at a nursing home in South Woodford.
Elizabeth was propped up in bed with the sun streaming in through the window. She was as full of verve as ever, despite being heavily dosed with morphine due to the pain being caused by the cancer.
She spoke of the work, the need to move onward in striving for justice in the world.
This was typical of Elizabeth, always concerned to work for a better world in line with gospel values right up to her dying day.
I only knew Elizabeth for the past 20 years of her life but she certainly served God fully throughout her time on this earth.
Educated by the Ursuline sisters at St Angela’s in Forest Gate, east London, Elizabeth joined the order when she was 18. She then became a teacher at the nearby Ilford Ursuline school. Finally, she went on to Wimbledon where she was head for nine years.
It was whilst at Ilford Ursuline that Elizabeth taught Kathy Piper, who went on to work for the Catholic Institute for International Relations and later become chair of the Brentwood Justice and Peace Commission. “It was Elizabeth, as my teacher, who taught me to care about social justice as part of faith commitment, at the age of 14. I wonder now how many other people she inspired down the years to become involved,” said Mrs Piper.
Elizabeth then left teaching, working as a sister in a Welsh parish before she decided to leave the Ursulines and take up a role in education and research at CAFOD.
Elizabeth worked for 10 years for CAFOD particularly on its Renewing the Earth campaign. The environment was her real passion, with the destruction being caused by global warming a constant concern to her.
She worked on the environment at local, diocesan and national levels. Elizabeth also worked across faiths, involved with Christian Ecology Link and Operation Noah.
This commitment to the environment was lived out at her funeral which she insisted be conducted by a Columban priest due to that orders work for justice and creation around the world. The mass took place at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in east London, adorned with greenery.
Beyond the environment though Elizabeth was always there supporting the work. She marched against the various wars and supported the multi-faith group Peace and Justice in East London with its work for peace. She also supported the group’s work with the families of those being detained without trial in the UK.
It was in this work that Elizabeth came into contact with another remarkable Catholic woman Sarah Hipperson.
Sarah campaigned against detention without trial but before that she was part of the Greenham Common camp. It was back in the 1980s that Sarah upped and left the leafy London suburb of Wanstead to campaign against nuclear missiles being sited at Greenham Common in Berkshire.
Sarah eventually spent the best part of the next 18 years at Greenham Common, endeavouring to prevent a nuclear armageddon occurring. Then she helped establish a peace garden at the site in order that this particular struggle was not forgotten.
A former justice of the peace Sarah ended up serving several prison sentences for her direct peaceful actions in seeking the removal of the US missiles.
Now in her 1980s, Sarah has returned to Wanstead, where she continues the work for justice.
Another person doing work for justice is Sister Catherine Reily, who has been quietly supporting the Travellers at Dale Farm for the past eight years. She visits the site on a regular basis, supporting the families and helping out where she can. A quiet supporter but another steady witness to gospel values.
Sister Pat Robb has worked for years on behalf of refugees, standing up for human rights. Whenever I see Sister Robb, she always has a cause, some injustice that she wants taken up. A family in trouble a person being mistreated who has already suffered the effects of torture.
These fantastic women should be an inspiration to all in the Church, they’ve worked away really putting gospel values into action.
The institutional church has rarely been supportative of much of the work that these women have done but it is these witnesses to truth and justice that really live out gospel values. They are the true prophets and disciples of Christ in this modern age.
It is the witness of the likes of Elizabeth, Sarah, Catherine and Pat together with many others that sustain the rest of us at difficult times in a Church struggling to find its way in the modern world. These and others continue to battle away in the margins for social justice.
Surely, adopting a more inclusive approach to these and many other women would offer a real way forward for the Church in the 21st century.